These Companies Will Work on R2-D2-Like Drone Helper for Air Force Pilots

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A Skyborg conceptual design for a low cost Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle.
A Skyborg conceptual design for a low cost Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle. (U.S. Air Force)

Four defense companies have been selected to begin work on the U.S. Air Force's Skyborg program, which aims to pair artificial intelligence with a human piloting a fighter jet.

The service chose Boeing Co., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems Inc., and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. to move forward on the program; however, the companies will be competing for the indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract, estimated to be worth up to $400 million, according to an announcement.

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The autonomous Skyborg is intended for reusable unmanned aerial vehicles in a manned-unmanned teaming mission; the drones are considered "attritable," or cheap enough that they can be destroyed without significant cost.

"Because autonomous systems can support missions that are too strenuous or dangerous for manned crews, Skyborg can increase capability significantly and be a force multiplier for the Air Force," said Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft. White and Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), together lead the Skyborg program.

"We have the opportunity to transform our warfighting capabilities and change the way we fight and the way we employ air power," White said in a release.

"Autonomy technologies in Skyborg's portfolio will range from simple playbook algorithms to advanced team decision making and will include on-ramp opportunities for artificial intelligence technologies," added Pringle. "This effort will provide a foundational Government reference architecture for a family of layered, autonomous and open-architecture unmanned aerial [systems]."

Skyborg is one of three initiatives in the service's Vanguard Program portfolio for rapid prototyping and development of new-age technologies it can leverage for multiple operations. The Vanguard program brings together the research lab and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center to "quickly identify cutting-edge technology and transition directly into the hands of the warfighter," the release states.

The Air Force launched the bidding process for Skyborg in May; it expects Skyborg's initial operation to be ready by the end of 2023.

Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, first spoke of the Air Force Research Lab-led program last year.

He told reporters during the 2019 McAleese Conference that, while it is reminiscent of the Air Force's proposed Loyal Wingman program to send out drones ahead of fighters to act as scouts, Skyborg will take the concept even further, with an AI plane that trains with its pilot, acting as a sidekick, rapidly thinking through problems and taking command if necessary.

In short, it's R2-D2 from "Star Wars" in an aircraft of its very own, he said.

"I might eventually decide, 'I want that AI in my own cockpit,'" Roper said. "So if something happened immediately, [the AI] could take hold, make choices in a way that [a pilot would] know because [a pilot has] trained with it."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: The Air Force Is Now Accepting Bids to Build R2D2-Like 'Skyborg' Copilots

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